Wildflower Trips For Anyone With a Can-Do Spirit
By Joyce Kiefer
About the time when the Bay Area hills turn crispy brown for the summer, a blast of wildflowers brings spring to the high Sierras along Carson Pass on Highway 88. Waist-high bushes of purple lupine, spiky red paint brush, sunflower-like mule ears, ground-hugging pussy paws, even leafless red snow flowers line trails that lead to alpine lakes and breathtaking views of the mountains.
This is my favorite season in these mountains, which I’ve been exploring since we bought a vacation home in this area a dozen years ago. July and the first part of August may be hot and dry elsewhere, but here the snow melt and thunderstorms water the meadows to bring forth an amazing variety of flowers. Add a crown of mountain peaks and lovely little lakes, and you have an outing you’ll never forget.
Locals agree that the best flower expedition is the trail to Lake Winnemucca through the Mokelumne Wilderness, beginning at Carson Summit. This hike is my annual birthday treat. The two-mile moderate trail starts off next to the Visitor Center, a great place to pick up nature guides and ask questions. Your dog is welcome to join you as long as it’s leashed.
The first mile climbs through a forest to Frog Lake. As a Bay Area flatlander, I appreciate the chance to stoop and catch my breath (8,000 ft. elevation) while admiring this small hanging lake. Trees surround the shore, except for the side where it looks like the water might spill off the mountain. Back on the trail, you’ll see the mountains come into view. Then comes a junction. The Pacific Crest Trail – yes, you’ve been walking it so far – forks to the left and the trail to Lake Winnemucca goes right. Cheryl Strayed, meet Maria Von Trapp! A vast mountainside meadow opens up, and flowers are everywhere - iris, columbine, gentian, lupine, paint brush, small sunflowers. The flowers closest to the streams are lush and waist-high. Small blue butterflies flutter around wet spots on the trail. The entire slope is abloom.
On the far side of the meadow lies postcard-perfect Lake Winnemucca. Its deep blue water is bordered by snow-spotted peaks and trees that are sun bleached and twisted by the wind.
Hardy hikers can trek another mile up to Round Lake, then over the barren slope down to the woods and flowers that set off 4th of July Lake, making a round trip of nine miles. My husband and I have done this, but now we’re content to stop at Lake W, enjoy a picnic lunch, and then get back to that meadow.
Another way to approach this spot is from Woods Lake near Caples Reservoir, but parking fills up fast, partly due to the campground.
Two other favorites at Carson PassMaybe it’s the name, but it’s certainly the flowers and the view from the top that makes Schneider’s Cow Camp a fascinating place. Finding it is also fun. Turn off at the Cal Trans facility near Caples Lake. Behind the buildings take a 2-mile dirt road and park at the big old barn. That’s the cow camp but I’ve never seen a cow there. Then hike up the trail to the top of Meiss ridge through cow parsnip, mule ears, corn lilies, red heather and more. When you reach the top, what a view! Breathtaking – not just because you’re at 9,200 feet – but because there’s a 360-degree view of the Truckee River basin, Kirkwood ski area, lakes, and the mountains. Best to go in the morning, as the ridge can get windy.
You can’t beat the location of the trail to Lake Margaret. A reward of juicy hamburgers and cold beer at the Kirkwood Inn make great incentives to take that 2 ½ mile hike to this charming granite bathtub of a lake and reward yourself when you’re back. The trail winds through a forest with lush plant life. Consider taking a dip. Lake Margaret is not as chilly as most alpine lakes. Backpack camping is allowed here and so is your dog.
More than one way to see those flowers
You don’t have to hike to enjoy the flowers. Local resorts offer several ways to explore the high mountain wildflower spots beside your feet. Mountain bikers can take a chairlift to the mountain bike park at Kirkwood Mountain Resort. Hikers can use these lifts as well. Kirkwood Sierra Outfitters offers scenic guided horse rides throughout the Mokelumne Wilderness and El Dorado National Forest. Want to know the names of the flowers? Kirkwood and Sorensen’s Resorts, the latter in nearby Hope Valley, offer guided wildflower hikes in July.
The poet William Blake saw ” heaven in a wildflower.” If so, the pastures of heaven are surely on Carson Pass.
WHEN YOU GO:
Carson Pass on Highway 88 is about a half hour from South Lake Tahoe and about 1 ½ hours from Sutter Creek, Volcano, and Jackson in the Gold Country.For a comprehensive look at Carson Pass resorts and restaurants, and what they offer, check the website “Up and Over Carson Pass” http://www.carsonpass.com/lodging/lodges.html
Prefer to camp or backpack? Get details on the Eldorado Forest Service website.www.fs.usda.gov/eldorado/ or call (209) 295-4251.
More about the hikes:
Schneider Cow Camp: http://www.enfia.org/trails/schneider-camp-trails/schneider-camp-overview
Lake Margaret: http://www.tahoeadventuresports.com/hikeindex/south/maragretlake.htm
Joyce Kiefer is a regular contributor to Bay Area Family Travel